Strategies for Bright Sunlight

The old "outside room" trick
Bright, sunny days are heaven for the soul, but hell for photography. All that cheerful, direct sunshine creates intractable dynamic range. If the sunlight hits an area that area is going to be ultra-bright highlight, and if it doesn't it's going to be deep, dark shadow. And there will be very little in between. Also, when the sun is high in the sky, there's very little directionality to its shadows. They're cast beneath. So portraits tend to result in squinty eyes buried in dark sockets hard-shadowed by the brows. Something like this:

In direct sunlight you'll get hard shadows on the face. Not good.

There are a couple of ways to deal with this, but the photo at the top of this post is an example of my favorite: Find a structure with an opening to the outside – a garage, a building, a cave, etc. Preferably the structure has a dark interior. In the case of my photo above, it's an old empty barn/warehouse with one side completely open to the outside. It doesn't matter much what's in the structure because the exposure is going to cast it in darkness. Place your subject just far enough inside the structure so that no direct light hits him/her. That should be just on the dark side of the shadow cast on the ground by the structure itself in the bright sunlight. In this position, your subject will be will-lit, but indirectly by reflected light off the ground and neighboring surfaces. The light will be a nice, glowing sort of light that is very attractive. Then, it's simply a matter of using spot-metering to set your exposure on the subject's skin (instead of letting the camera try to exposure for the dark interior).

If you look at the top photo, the light is nice except for one thing. It is primarily reflected light from the ground, so it is shining up from beneath, which is not the most flattering way to do it. It works okay here only because the quality of light is otherwise very good. (Hard light cast from below is called "ghoul lighting" for a reason.) But a great way to improve it is to use a reflector to bounce some more light from the side and/or above the subject. That will create a more natural looking direction for facial shadows. For best results you want your reflector light to be the key and the sidewalk light to be fill, so the balance of light strength should be tipped toward the reflector.

With your subject just inside the shade of the building, there are other compelling shots you can get depending on where you place yourself. For the photo above, I shot from the outside looking in. You can also shoot from the inside out, exposing for the face and letting the background blow out. Or you can place yourself in the same transitional light/shadow area and shoot your subject from that vantage point so that the outdoor light is coming from the side of the frame. Shooting your subject in profile looking out toward the light is a really nice shot! All of these approaches work very well. And they don't require any lighting gear other than maybe a reflector. Thinking about it now, I realize that I should have explored the possibilities of this a bit more. But my subject is only good for a few photos before his patience wears thin.

By the way, the structure doesn't have to be an enclosed room. It can be an open structure like a gazebo, patio, veranda, or anything with a covered top. The difference is that if your background is the bright outside, you're going to blow it out when you expose for the face. This is not necessarily a bad thing. High-key portraits are cool too!

Shooting in a shady area

So what do you do if there's no building around? Well, then just look for good shade. The photo above is from the same session in the same park, within an hour or so of the other two photos. For this one, there was an arc of trees lining a field. Inside the arc, it was shady. So I placed my subject there. The shade in these kinds of areas can be dappled, so the key thing you have to watch out for is that there are no bright patches of light on your subject. Especially on the face. Make sure that they are fully shaded. Then just spot meter on the face and you're good to go.